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Police Officer’s “Hunch” is not enough To Stop a Vehicle Leading to Suppression of Evidence.

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reversed the decision of a lower court resulting in the suppression of evidence. The Court found that the undisputed facts do not establish a reasonable articulable suspicion the defendant was involved in criminal activity, the investigatory stop of defendant’s vehicle was not justified, and the evidence obtained in the subsequent warrantless and unlawful motor-vehicle search should have been suppressed. Accordingly, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction, vacated his sentence, and remanded for further proceedings.

To be lawful, an automobile stop ‘must be based on reasonable and articulable suspicion that an offense, including a minor traffic offense, has been or is being committed.’” State v. Bacome, 228 N.J. 94, 103 (2017) (quoting State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632, 639-40 (2002)). “An investigative detention is permissible ‘if it is based on specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.’” Chisum, 236 N.J. at 545-46 (quoting State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 20 (2004)). An investigatory stop is not permissible if it is “based on arbitrary police practices, the officer’s subjective good faith, or a mere hunch.” State v. Coles, 218 N.J. 322, 343 (2014). A decision to conduct an investigatory stop must be supported by “some objective manifestation that the suspect was or is involved in criminal activity.” State v. Thomas, 110 N.J. 673, 678 (1988).

The lower court was found to have based his decision on a factual finding that defendant had “display[ed] a lot of nervous type conduct” and his “nervousness ... would be inconsistent with having a lawful right to carry the gun.” Engaging in circular reasoning, the judge found both that defendant’s nervous and suspicious conduct indicated he was in the unlawful possession of a gun and that his apparent possession of contraband supported the conclusion defendant was acting suspiciously. The motion judge found the duffle “bag lent itself to carrying a rifle” and that “the size of the bag and the way the defendant held it and manipulated it, indicated ... the bag contained a gun.”

The Appellate Division found that “[a] duffle bag lends itself to carrying a lot of things. That is the nature of a duffle bag. Looking around a one-way street is not “display[ing] a lot of nervous type conduct” and is not sufficient credible evidence to support the motion judge’s conclusion. It also is not inherently indicative of criminal behavior. Neither is carrying a duffle bag under an arm holding it with two hands. Defendant’s conduct, at most, is an “ambiguous indicator of involvement in criminal activity and subject to many different interpretations, [which] cannot alone form the basis for reasonable suspicion.” Nyema, ___ N.J. ___ (slip. op. at 32).

The Appellate Division found that the information Estevez received from Sansone and Birudaraju, on which he based his decision to stop defendant’s vehicle, indicates a hunch and did not amount to objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion justifying an investigatory stop. Because the investigatory stop was improper, the subsequent search of the vehicle was illegal and the physical evidence seized in that search should have been suppressed.


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